Breast cancer: How one mum still inspires the family she left behind

Breast cancer killed Tricia Elouahabi just six months after the birth of her son. Kate Hilpern reports

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Most women spend the days following a Caesarean section recovering from the surgery. But Tricia Elouahabi gave birth on a Friday in one London hospital and started her first bout of chemotherapy in another on the Monday.

A diagnosis of an aggressive form of breast cancer is always bad news, never more so than when you are 26 weeks pregnant. But her husband Rashid, 34, recalls: "While her mum, who was also in the room, broke down, and I stared ahead in shock, Tricia was both pragmatic and optimistic, choosing to focus immediately on what we needed to do to ensure survival for both her and our baby."

Tricia, he recalls, was told she urgently needed strong treatment and radical surgery that would affect her unborn baby, but that it was too late for a termination – something the doctor would have insisted on if her diagnosis had come two weeks earlier. "In fact, he admitted it was such an unusual situation that he didn't quite know what to do... they had a meeting and decided to bring the birth forward to 28 weeks, the earliest they felt it would be safe for the baby and the longest they felt they could leave Trish without treatment. And so our son, Yasim, was born on 2 February 2012, weighing under two 2lb."

Rashid and Tricia originally met when they were both studying at Roehampton University, back in 2001. But although the pair hit it off immediately, it was not until the day Rashid was leaving to go and work in Dubai in 2005 that Tricia told him how she felt about him. "I was thrilled. She was lovely."

Eventually settling back in the UK, the couple got married in 2011, after which they planned to live together in Ruislip, Middlesex. "Our son was conceived on our wedding night, which was also our first time, so it was quite a shock, but very special," says Rashid. "In fact, everything was going brilliantly until a few months into the pregnancy, when we were having a cuddle and I noticed the side of her chest felt rock solid."

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Rashid Elouahabi with Tricia, soon after Yasim's birth (David Sandison)

Tricia's GP thought it was a virus and it was only when it didn't disappear that he suggested a biopsy. "But he said it was probably nothing to worry about, so we didn't. In fact, we turned up to the hospital, giggling and talking away about something, and we were surprised when Tricia's mum turned up. But the moment the consultant opened the door, I knew."

"I have bad news. It's cancer and it's very aggressive," came the words. Still, the next two weeks weren't the doom and gloom they might have been for some couples, says Rashid.

"We're not the kind of people to feel sorry for ourselves and I think that was our biggest saviour during the months ahead. Plus, things were frantic. We'd just got married and had been expecting to go to the Maldives on a honeymoon and settle into our new home, when we found ourselves expecting a baby, Trish having cancer and not having sorted out our home at all. So we didn't really have time to stop and think."

Rashid laughs when he remembers Yasim's birth. "As the doctor asked if I was ready to start filming him coming out, I saw the nurse holding him up and saying, 'Oh, you cheeky little bugger!' He had just peed all over her! 'That's our boy, naughty from the start,' I said."

Despite Yasim weighing under 2lb and Rashid and Tricia being warned that it would be a shock to see him with so many wires in the neonatal unit, the couple were just happy he was alive. "We were also reassured by the staff in the neonatal unit, as well as Yasim responding so well to our daily skin-to-skin contact."

Also keeping their spirits up was fact that the CT scan (which could only be done after the baby was born) showed no secondary cancers. "Even the chemotherapy, despite being intensive, didn't seem to hit Tricia hard. She lost her hair and got constipation, but she was brilliant about it and we managed to eat out and plan holidays throughout it. I even had to tell her to slow down as she was exercising so much."

With the chemo having shrunk the tumour from 10cm to less than 0.5cm, Tricia was ready for surgery. "There were complications, so what should have been a seven-hour mastectomy wound up being 15 hours and that was a terrible worry, but she was okay. It was when she having radiotherapy that she was not."

Tricia, he explains, started having neck and back pains that became so excruciating that Rashid would have to rub the area for an hour or two a night. And while a physiotherapist, Laura Penhaul (more of whom later), helped her enormously in the short-term, things eventually got worse and even her eyesight was affected.

"I don't want to be a rubbish mum and wife," she told Rashid, for the first time showing signs of feeling downhearted, although he felt she was anything but. A scan showed that the cancer had spread to the brain and spinal cord and was terminal and this, says Rashid, is the moment they accepted it. "I don't mean we gave up. Even then, when they gave her six months, we focused on the positive things we'd do during that time. But we did cry. Of course we cried."

Just 21 days later, on 26 October 2012, when Yasim was six months old, Tricia died in Rashid's arms, surrounded by her whole family looking at their wedding album, which they had just received that morning for the first time. "Yasim had been crawling on top of her, enjoying cuddles almost to the end, and she spent much of her last days expressing her wishes for me and Yasim and making video messages for him and the family. There was laughter between us, even then, and the Marie Curie nurse who was with us said she had never seen such a beautiful death."

Today, Rashid, a PE teacher, continues to live in Ruislip and brings up three-year-old Yasim with the help of both his and Tricia's parents.

"For the most part, I'm positive, but part of me is gone and there are times that are very hard," he says. "In fact, it was one day when Laura, Trish's physiotherapist who kept in touch with us, said, 'It must be difficult that Yasim looks so much like his mum' that I found myself saying, 'Thank you. Everyone points out how lovely it must be, but it is sometimes unbearable'."

However, he says, it is Tricia's incredible bravery that keeps him not only going but buoyant most of the time – something that Laura says is incredibly touching to see.

In fact, it has moved her to choose Breast Cancer Care as one of the charities to support when she and three other women row unsupported across the Pacific. Calling themselves the Coxless Crew, they set out on 8 April and hope to raise £250,000 for Breast Cancer Care and the ex-servicemen and women's charity Walking with the Wounded.

"There are so many great causes we could have supported, but this row is about not giving up when faced with extreme adversity and I couldn't think of a family who have done this more bravely than Rashid and Tricia, so it is in honour of Tricia, an extraordinary mother, that we are doing it."

You can follow the Coxless Crew's journey, which leaves the UK on 8 April, via a live tracker on their website, coxlesscrew.com or on Facebook/Twitter pages. Text DORIS to 70300 to donate £3

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